I once knew a man who could bend nails with his bare hands. I saw him take a 60 penny nail (6 inches in length) and twist it into a U. Slim “The Hammerman” Farman was the father of one of my students.
Over 30 years ago, I saw him perform at Zern’s Farmer’s Market. He lifted two sledgehammers by the ends of their handles and extended them in front of him at shoulder’s height and held them there for seconds before lifting them above his head and then slowly bringing them to rest on the ground — all without breaking the extension of his arms.
Physical strength is impressive. Stamina and endurance in effort over time is worthy of respect. I thought of Slim the other night when I was listening to NPR’s business show, Marketplace, and heard that the US had lost 8 million manufacturing jobs in the last 30 years. Mr. Farman labored in a quarry his entire life. He made a middle class home for his wife and daughters through hard physicalwork.
I worked lots of physical jobs growing up and in the summers during college. I shoveled snow for neighbors, cleared tables and hoisted big loads of dishes as a busboy, packed bags and restocked produce of all kinds, loaded trucks and worked in an assembly line packing hams, operated sheet metal cutters and punch machines where leather gauntlets jerked my wrists out of the way and kept my hands from being smashed. I worked in a food plant that made pretzels and dangled on a bosun’s chair in a huge flour container and cleaned flour dust from its sides with a broom. During college I swept classrooms and washed blackboards in the science building. Norton Merkel, the regular custodian, befriended me, taught me and spent hours telling me stories of his ancestors from the old country. I worked in a truck suspension assembly plant next to the Schuylkill River.
Lots of tough guys worked there including a skinny pimp who worked on the paint line and who shot a man outside an after-hours club one Friday night. The man no one messed with though was Iron Mike. We were too intimidated to approach him and ask his real name. Iron Mike never spoke to anyone except a broken bodied old man who fetched coffee for the older guys. Mike arrived each morning in a Cadillac, wore a short-billed dull green cap, big, leather gloves and a wide mustache, and he could sling four-foot wide, six-foot long sheets of steel from stack to cutter to stack all day long, an unlit cigar in the side of his mouth the whole time. I felt as if I was watching a dinosaur back when that comparison suggested ferocity and strength and not extinction.
Over the course of three summers I worked at a meat-packing plant. I often worked the night shift, boxing orders for customers and packing those orders on multiple trucks. A delivery truck has to be packed for the driver’s ease in making deliveries – the first delivery is last packed. It needs an efficient matrix of square and rectangular
boxes, each with the customer’s name and number written on the facing side (box 8 of 12). The boxes cannot be too heavy or too light. They should not move but be tightly joined together. No boxes should fall and spill their contents. They should be securely taped, top and bottom, reinforced if necessary. Think of the driver. Think of the customer. Do it right.
I worked with a partner. We had to coordinate our packing of orders on the truck. We had to move smoothly around each other and work at a similar pace. The men with whom I worked taught the ‘college kid’ how to do all this with remarkable patience and a rough, good humor.Most of them were in their late 40’s or early 50’s and had been doing these jobs since high school or before. Many had never completed high school; they had dropped out so they could bring home a paycheck to their parents. They married neighborhood sweethearts, bought row homes in the Polish or Italian or German-Irish areas where they had grown up, began having children and made good, modest lives a block away from their parents and sisters and brothers and sometimes on the same street.
On some Friday or Saturday nights I would meet them at a Polish bar/restaurant for big platters of seafood and French fries and pitchers of beer. They let me dance polkas with their wives who sometimes pinched me and
then laughed. Their husbands laughed too to see me blush.
My home town of Reading, PA had lots of jobs for strong backs then – for the Reading Railroad or in steel mills or factories of every type; some textile mills were still up and making a profi; in slaughterhouses, for stores in the thriving downtown retail sector, in breweries or in food processing plants. There was plenty of work to go around.
I remember their pride in their skills – how to trim a ham the right way, how to troubleshoot an assembly line when product is stacking up, how to wear a hard hat so it doesn’t fall over your forehead and cover your eyes all night, what to look for in the right shoes so your legs won’t get too tired, how to talk about the Phillies or the Eagles without causing hard feelings, how to get around a prick of a boss, how not to be an ass****. I remember their generosity and their many small kindnesses.
What will happen to all those good backs and strong legs and that willingness to lift and stack? What will happen to the knowledge of how to perform a myriad of tasks that fed families? Who will patiently teach other ‘college kids’ what it really means to earn your living by the sweat of your brow? These are all tales of a vanished world and more’s the pity.